People turn to faith in troubled times

USA Today, Mar. 21, 2003
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

War-watchers who tuned in to CNN on Thursday night may have caught a new commercial by one of the most vocal and active anti-Iraq-war voices in recent months — the United Methodist Church.

Just as they did in the days after 9/11, many Americans responded to the reality of war by turning to church and synagogue services, from a special Mass for peace at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan to a service of prayer and healing in a historic social-activist synagogue, Temple Israel of Greater Miami.

No matter the denomination’s stand on whether the U.S. pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein is a ‘just war” in their religious tradition, there were three themes in the pews and pulpits: calls for peace; prayers for the safe return of all U.S. troops; and reminders of the solace and strength to be found in faith during times of turmoil.

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To a similar prayer list, a statement from leaders of the National Council of Churches, representing 36 Protestant denominations, adds Iraqi civilians, “all the people of the world who will be put at risk by the unintended consequences of this war” and all those in poverty whose fragile well-being will be sacrificed in the preoccupation with — and expense of — the war.

The Vatican announced Pope John Paul II’s “deep pain” over the hostilities he had pushed vigorously to avoid, even sending a personal envoy to present the case for ongoing diplomacy to President Bush two weeks ago. Thursday, the Vatican said, “It is to be deplored that negotiations were interrupted.” Many Catholic bishops held special Masses for “peace and justice” including one late Thursday afternoon planned by New York City’s Cardinal Edward Cardinal Egan.

The $150,000 commercial for hope from the United Methodist Church, set to run on three other cable news networks later this week, shows a spinning roll of duct tape coming to rest as a voice says the church is “praying for under standing, for healing, for peace.”

All winter UMC Bishop Melvin Talbert led ecumenical voices against the war, even traveling to Britain to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Once the first bombs fell Wednesday, however, the focus shifted from how to think about war to how to survive it spiritually. “In times of turmoil, crisis and need, people turn to God,” says spokesman Stephen Drachler. On the leading multifaith spirituality Web site,, 50 prayer circles — a cyber-ring of petitions to God for an individual or for all the deployed troops and their families at home — were rapidly posted and received many online hits once missiles started hitting Baghdad.

“Clearly thousands of people are turning to prayer, and to each other, to deal with the in tense fear and anxiety of seeing their loved ones go into battle. The Internet provides a way of making a public demonstration of love and a way of connecting with other people in the same position,” even total strangers, says Beliefnet founder Steve Waldman.

Clergy of every stripe say they see themselves not so much as pro- or anti-war opinion leaders but more as teachers and coaches, showing people how to draw on the traditions and resources of their religion.

Mike Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., told parishioners and readers of his column at to count on their Christian teachings to “cultivate a mindset of love, to pray for all people (and) to seek to find our own sense of security in God and God alone.”

Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz planned an evening service at Temple Israel, an 80-year-old urban activist Jewish congregation in Miami, to be held whenever the war began. Thursday the calls flooded in and the event was planned with prayers and songs from John Lennon’s peace-classic Imagine to a traditional Jewish chant for peace and strength that says, “All the world is just a narrow bridge and, above all, is not to fear at all.”

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released earlier this week found only 10% of Americans say the strongest influence on their view on war comes from their religious teachings. But no one needed a survey after 9/11 when people jammed churches, synagogues and mosques to know that many more people do rely on faith or the power of a community of believers to carry them through days of fear and uncertainty, says Drachler.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 21, 2003.
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